Union votes to defy Chicago school reopening plans, boosting potential for another strike

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
January 25, 2021

Union votes to defy Chicago school reopening plans, boosting potential for another strike

Students are scheduled to return to classrooms Feb. 1 for the first time in 10 months. The union is threatening that.

Many Chicago Public Schools elementary students are expecting to return to the classroom on Feb. 1.

But the Chicago Teachers Union voted to defy CPS’ reopening plans, which called for teachers to return to schools Jan. 25, in favor of continued remote learning. Most of CPS’s 340,000 students haven’t been in a classroom for 10 months.

CTU and CPS reached a five-year contract agreement in 2019 after a two-week strike. Now, if teachers don’t return to school Jan. 27, the district will regard teachers’ failure to return as an unauthorized strike. A strike will hurt students as well as Chicago’s future, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

“Here’s what I’m hearing from residents all around the city and from parents in particular: If we don’t have stability in the public school system, why should we stay in Chicago? If we have to worry about lockouts and strikes, particularly after a historic contract where everyone thought we had bought labor peace for five years, people vote with their feet,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Tribune.

The strike in 2019 kept students out of class for 11 of the 15 days it lasted and cost residents an average of $80 a year in higher property taxes. It was the third strike in seven years, but state lawmakers just passed a bill to potentially make it even easier for CTU to strike.

House Bill 2275 repeals restrictions that at least partially hindered the union’s ability to walk out by limiting the subjects that could lead them to call a strike. The bill has yet to be signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, but already CTU appears to be ready to use expanded powers to strike.

Even if Pritzker signs the legislation, a CTU ‘strike’ could be illegal

Under Illinois labor law, CPS teachers and staff cannot engage in a strike when there is a current collective bargaining agreement in place. Striking while under contract is considered an illegal strike.

While CPS and CTU have been engaged in ongoing discussions about the best way to safely open school buildings, a contract is already in place.

But the illegality of a strike hasn’t stopped CTU in the past. In April 2016, the union engaged in a one-day strike that was later determined by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to be likely illegal.

While refusing to report to work in person may not be termed an official “strike” by CTU, it certainly would look like one, especially with the union orchestrating the refusal.

It’s a gray area that likely could require resolution by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

Teachers should be aware that a labor board determination on the legality of the action isn’t likely to come until after the action has already occurred, and the district can discipline teachers who do not show up for work during illegal strikes.

CTU has a long history of strong-arming parents and the district to get what it wants

Before the soon-to-be-repealed restrictions were in place, the union went on strike nine times: in 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987.

Then legislation was enacted in 1995 that limited the issues the union could bargain and strike over. Still, the union went on strike three times within seven years – the most recent in 2019 lasting 11 days .

During a strike in 2012, students missed seven days of instruction. The strike also had longer-term effects: CPS had to close 50 schools and lay off thousands of teachers.

In 2017 CTU earned two spots on a list of the top-10 largest labor strikes in the past decade.

Notably, Illinois is the only state in the region that allows teachers to go on strike.

CTU’s actions show there is good reason to ban the practice.

Currently available health data is not on CTU’s side

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of CTU, has demanded for months that school districts continue remote learning or return to it. But science is not on its side.

“New information tells us that opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission of [COVID-19], however it is critical for schools to closely follow guidance provided by public health officials,” according to Dr. Lee Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For example, a UNICEF report reviewing evidence in 191 countries found “no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”

There is also evidence coming out of Chicago itself, where 90-plus Catholic schools – which educate approximately 20,000 students – have not seen any significant outbreaks since starting school in-person last fall.

Chicago already meets the metric health officials put in place for school reopening. And again, CPS has stated it has already agreed with CTU on major health and safety protocols.

CTU has neither international nor local health data to support encouraging teachers to stay out of the classrooms.

That could weigh against the union if the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board must decide whether a strike, or similar action, over re-opening schools is illegal.

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